Distance is all in the mind of a Richmonder. Someone living near Virginia Commonwealth University might not think twice about heading to Libbie and Grove avenues (six miles) or Short Pump (13 miles) for a meal, without considering something far closer.
Parkside Cafe is three miles from downtown, but because it requires crossing the river (horrors), people might forget about it. This neighborhood spot, which caters to its regulars with well-priced comfort food, might deserve a closer look.
The space offers booths for privacy, and tables that can be combined for larger groups, plus a tiny deck with one umbrella-covered table. A stack of highchairs attests to kid friendliness; music is a comfortable mix of old-school jazz and R&B.
The menu, revised earlier this year, is straightforward, with a few tweaks such as house-made pastas from owner Brian Munford's other restaurant, Patina Grill. New England clam chowder ($2 cup, $4 bowl) is a standout, delicately seasoned and with sufficient clams, but so rich that a whole bowl would put a hurting on any further eating. A salad of mixed greens with feta, roasted peppers and cucumbers in an herb dressing ($6) is simple and satisfying. One of bibb lettuce, avocado and toasted pumpkin seeds ($6) comes with a roasted-jalapeño-buttermilk ranch that doesn't quite work.
Intrigued by the sound of black-eyed pea fritters with pickled red pepper ($5), we're surprised when they arrive looking more like potato pancakes than fritters. It's clear from the first bite that the black-eyed peas have been cooked with onion, tomato and garlic. Pickled red pepper and sour cream add more flavor. Cheddar baked in phyllo with fresh fruit ($5) is size-appropriate for the price, although we wished for a little more fruit.
It turns out that getting house-made pasta is a little more difficult than expected. On our first visit, we're warned the restaurant's out of it, so we order accordingly. Shrimp and grits with country ham, mushrooms and thyme ($13) show up with unexpected corn kernels throughout, the star of the otherwise rather bland dish. Beef pot roast with potatoes, carrots and onions ($15) may be the most expensive entree on the menu, but it's a generous, well-seasoned portion and a real treat, because some of us are too lazy to make it at home.
A week later, we return to try the house-made tagliatelle Bolognese with garlic bread and Parmesan ($9). While the thick, creamy sauce delivers, the pasta doesn't. An inquiry to our server proves us right: The tagliatelle wasn't house-made, except this time we weren't warned in advance. You may check first, if it matters to you.
Desserts shine at Parkside because they're all made in-house and cost $5. A plum crisp sounds like a nice twist on a classic, and though the topping isn't crisp, the plums are a delight. Crème caramel is denser than most versions but is a crowd pleaser.
The wine list is simple, with all glasses priced at $5 or $24 by the bottle; beers range from a $3 Budweiser to a $9.50 Hardywood Singel abbey-style blond ale, with pale ales and pilsners in between. For something light, aqua frescas ($2.50) come in nine flavors, including hibiscus and passion fruit, and can be enjoyed by the youngest customers.
And that's Parkside's strength. There's enough variety for the family — grilled pork tenderloin with white beans and a caramelized onion-port reduction for adults, and a hamburger or chicken burrito for kids. It's a place where neighborhood families can eat without breaking the bank and then take a stroll through the park. S
3514 Forest Hill Ave.
Thursday-Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Tuesday-Sunday 5 p.m.-9 p.m. (10 p.m. weekends)